Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) met with the Pulaski County Commission Thursday morning and commissioners took the opportunity to discuss their frustrations with their past dealings with the agency.
Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) met with the Pulaski County Commission Thursday morning and commissioners took the opportunity to discuss their frustrations with their past dealings with the agency. Brenda Gusteson, Intergovermental Affairs Specialist, and Paul Pahjain, Field Operations Division Supervisor represented FEMA at the meeting. Presiding Commissioner Gene Newkirk, Western District Commissioner Ricky Zweerink, Eastern District Commissioner Lynn Sharp, Deputy Clerk Whitney Medlen, Pulaski County Emergency Management Director Lawson "Smitty" Smith, and County Surveyor Don Mayhew, who also serves as County Flood Plain Administrator, were all present at the meeting. County representatives expressed their frustration with how difficult they say it has been to get reimbursement from FEMA for the 2013 and 2015 floods. Commissioners pointed to instances of lost paperwork, denials of projects by one individual, after a previous one gave the go ahead on it, while Mayhew brought up questions about FEMA's process for figuring costs on projects. Mayhew pointed to a specific project involving a box culvert that where FEMA estimated repair costs to be $37.50. Mayhew said he didn't understand how they could have come to that figure when "you can't even buy the concrete for that." "You go through this endless appeal process trying to justify these costs," Mayhew said. The FEMA representatives listened to complaints about the prior issues with FEMA and assured the commission that things would be different this time around. Pahjain said that the organization was being completely restructured. The Daily Guide asked how things would be different and Pahjain said he "couldn't give specifics," but that they would be different. Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler also had a representative in attendance at the meeting, who spoke up about a meeting that Hartzler was attending to tackle some of the issues the county has been facing. Zweerink brought up the problem that county has faced with a lack of funds because they still haven't received funds from prior floods and problems that have resulted from bridges and roads that the county has been unable to fix for various reasons. One situation Zweerink pointed to was the one he told the Daily Guide about when he took the Daily Guide on a tour of roads and bridges in his district that have been or are currently FEMA issues, after the recent flooding. The situation involved a house that burned down in the Crocker area because a river crossing had been shut down and the fire department had to drive around to gain access another way. The county was unable to fix the bridge because FEMA said, according to Zweerink, that they will only fix it back to pre-existing conditions, but the Corps of Engineers said that a new design was needed. Zweerink told the Daily Guide that there are several crossings like this and the law requires the county to follow what the Corps says to do, but FEMA won't pay for that. He said that FEMA will pay to replace the same thing over and over again, but won't pay to make it better so that it doesn't have to continue to be fixed and the county doesn't have the money either. "We recognize we have issues with the PA (public assistance) projects. We're revamping the whole process," Pahjain said. After the meeting, the Daily Guide talked with commissioners and Mayhew to find out what they're thinking about how things will go forward with FEMA this time. Mayhew said he was "cautiously optimistic" and it was a "step in the right direction." Zweerink said, "We've heard it before, but we'll wait to see results." "Maybe they'll try to fix it," Sharp said. Newkirk said he felt that FEMA needed to have an office in the state, with FEMA representatives from Missouri to handle Missouri problems, rather than representatives from all over the country. He said he felt like this would save money and require less paperwork. Gusteson is going to be the county's point of contact for at least the next 90 days and is from Kansas City. Commissioners said having a single point of contact was a new development and were hopeful that it would make a difference with the 2017 flood.